Flood impacts multiply as water rises across NJ

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:03

    LITTLE FALLS — New Jersey rivers busted out of their banks Monday, causing record floods in some places, leaving residents elsewhere frustrated that they're stuck with homes that flood regularly and offering the first major test of new flood-control measures in one town that was awash 12 years ago. The scene in inland areas showed that the sense of relief a day earlier, that Hurricane Irene's wrath in the state wasn't as bad as feared, was premature. Tracks at the Trenton train station remained covered by floodwaters, a prime reason Amtrak officials did not know when they would be able to restore service between Philadelphia and New York City. New Jersey Transit said it planned to restore most of its commuter rail service Tuesday, though service between New Brunswick and Trenton would remain suspended. Detours were set up on hundreds of roads big and small because of high waters and fallen trees. More than 600,000 homes and businesses were still without electricity Monday afternoon, even as utility companies brought hundreds of thousands of others back on line. And the number of deaths that authorities said may be linked to the storm grew to at least six. Most of the dead were caught in fast-moving floodwaters. "We're not out of the woods yet regarding this storm," Gov. Chris Christie told a news conference Monday night in Manville, the scene of major flooding. Christie said waters had reached or passed record levels at nine river locations, and he warned that the Passaic River had not yet crested. "We're talking a tragic mass of flooding," said David Robinson, the state's climatologist, based at Rutgers University. Residents of Little Falls, along the Passaic River, watched brown river water lap up at the edges of their driveways on Sunday. By Monday, their basements and first floors were submerged, with the water not expected to stop rising until Tuesday. Carlos Medina found the water was so high that it breached his rubber overalls as he made his way to his front door to check on damage. "Everything's ruined," he said. "My couch and all my furniture, underwater. My computer, gone. But life is good. At least I have my family." Longtime residents said it was the worst flooding they'd ever seen, even in a neighborhood where some people have beautiful flood gardens borne of various seeds that washed up and took root in previous floods. In parts of Pompton Lakes, a northern community surrounded by three rivers, there were severe floods again, something that has become frustratingly commonplace lately. "We were told 10, 11 years ago when we moved in that this was a 100-year flood zone," said Joe Sevean. "This has happened seven times in 10 years, so which one is the 100-year flood?" The neighborhood was the scene of one of the most dramatic moments of the flooding when a house in the evacuation zone exploded early Monday. No one was there. At the time, natural gas lines were still on in the area. As firefighters fought rushing, chest-high water to try to extinguish the fire, Sevean's wife, Joy Sevean, was a few blocks away, half-jokingly suggesting that its owner may have gotten the best of the deal. She and other residents said they have given up hoping that the government will step in and either fix the flooding problems permanently or buy them out and turn the area into wetlands. "We have two children, and I don't want them living like this," she said as she pointed to the flooded park. "We want out, but it seems like nobody listens to us." Bound Brook, a town along the Raritan River that had some of the most dramatic floods 12 years ago when the remnants of Hurricane Floyd swamped the state, was getting hit again, but it seemed that flood controls built since then were keeping the waters from rising as high this time. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state started putting infrastructure in place to lessen the impact of flooding. A system of water pumps, levies, flood walls and diversions was making the difference between outright disaster and a manageable emergency, officials said. Downtown Bound Brook looked like an eerie movie studio Monday afternoon. Quaint clothing stores with mannequins in the windows stood alongside Ooh-La-La's gentleman's club and a Chinese restaurant. The normally bustling downtown was completely vacant as pumps sucked water from the main strip. At its height, the water reached businesses' doorknobs, officials said, but by late Monday only a few feet remained. A larger pump was pulling 180 cubic feet of water per second from Bound Brook's streets while a second drew 160 cubic feet. A contractor manned the larger pump throughout the hurricane as waters rose around him. At least five diversion pipes allowed water to flow to the pumps under the street from other areas. "This is how we calculate the benefits," said Col. John Boule, an Army Corps commander. "It's very satisfying for us and for the contractors who build it and did it right, just the way it was designed to be built." The federal government has shouldered most of the cost of building the system, with New Jersey picking up about one-third. The project is still in progress and will continue until the last component, a closure gate, is completed in next year. Even though much of Bound Brook is still under water and the damage is immense, it's a small fraction of what it would have been had the town not planned ahead, officials said. The floods were all over the state. Homes were evacuated from Hoboken, across the Hudson River from New York City, to Vineland, in southern New Jersey. In Wayne, floodwater from the Pompton River came so fast it buckled the asphalt in a car dealership. In several places, 5-ton watertight National Guard trucks helped get people out. For those with normal vehicles, the flooding made getting around New Jersey an enormous challenge as roads, including parts of Interstate 287 and the Garden State Parkway, were washed away. Some businesses, such as Johnson & Johnson's headquarters in New Brunswick, told workers to stay home. In Denville, St. Clare's Hospital kept about 110 patients in place as floodwater surrounded the building. One nurse used a kayak to get to work. Hurricane Irene hit at Little Egg Inlet north of Atlantic City early Sunday, only the third to make landfall in the state in the last 200 years. The winds gusted to over 60 mph along the shore, mostly evacuated of its visitors and residents. Beaches were severely eroded, but structural damage on the shore wasn't as bad as officials feared. But the rains Saturday and Sunday were heavy, and not just on the shore. Over 10 inches were recorded in Stockton and Wayne and at least 5 inches almost everywhere else. Robinson, the climatologist, said Irene would join the handful of storms whose names make people wince, like Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and the Ash Wednesday Nor'easter of 1962. He said that as a rainstorm, it will end up about as bad as Tropical Storm Doria, which doused the state 40 years earlier. The only worse flooding statewide was the Great Flood of 1903, which came in October of that year, the month after the last hurricane that made landfall in the state. It had been a wet month before Irene's rains arrived Saturday. Robinson said the average total rainfall from observation centers across the state will be about 15 inches for the month, 3 inches more than October 2005, which had been the rainiest recorded in the state. Some locations have had about 2 feet of rain in all.